Rays explain details of Montreal plan: ‘This is not a staged exit.’

Team officials started talking today about their plan to split seasons between Tampa Bay and Montreal.
Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg greets visitors prior to the Rays announcement Tuesday at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, that they want to play half of their home games in Montreal, Canada. SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg greets visitors prior to the Rays announcement Tuesday at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, that they want to play half of their home games in Montreal, Canada. SCOTT KEELER | Times
Published June 25, 2019|Updated June 25, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg was adamant in explaining Tuesday that the plan to split the season with Montreal is a solution to make the team successful in both markets and not a step toward leaving the Tampa Bay area:

“To be clear, this is not a staged exit. That thought has never entered my mind.''

Nor, Sternberg said is it “a page out of a playbook to gain leverage” to get a new stadium built as a fulltime home in the Tampa Bay area, which he said they no longer feel would solve the problems.

Related: MORE RAYS-MONTREAL COVERAGE: Rays to explore splitting home games with Montreal

Rather, he said, the issue is the volume of playing 81 home games — "a lot of games,'' Sternberg said — and by splitting the schedule it will make the team more successful in both markets.

"We are focused on this plan,'' he said during a media session under the geodesic dome of the Dali museum. "W are focused on how the Rays can thrive here in Tampa Bay. This is about Tampa Bay keeping its hometown team and Montreal having one as well - a permanent arrangement, a generational commitment to both communities. ... We think this can and will be extraordinary for the (Tampa Bay) region.''

Sternberg said several times they are “champions of the Tampa Bay area” and how much more connected to the area he feels since buying a home in St. Petersburg, and see this as a plan to keep baseball in the area beyond the use agreement for the Trop that ends in 2027.

But that is only if this plan, which he called a "creative and sensible solution,'' with the result being "baseball thriving in both places like it could not, like it would not, if all 81 home games took place in one place.'' They would like the split plan to start in 2024.

While maintaining he didn’t know what would happen if the plan failed, Sternberg made it quite clear on several times during the 50 minute session that "we never say never but after all we’ve been through and what we’ve learned it’s highly unlikely'' they would pivot back to pursuing a full-time home in the Tampa Bay.

“I don’t see it happening in St. Petersburg, and I would be hard-pressed to see it happen in Tampa as well, just given what I know,'' he said.

Sternberg said he is not planning to sell the team (but would take on some Montreal investors as minority partners), and that even if this doesn’t work they plan to honor the use agreement at the Trop through it’s 2027 end.

A key element of the plan is building new ballparks in both communities - open air and intimate, with 30,000 or fewer seats.

Sternberg said the potential sites for the new stadium to be built in the Tampa Bay area are subject to exploration, but that the downtown waterfront site of Al Lang Stadium is "definitely a possibility.''

He also confirmed that shifting spring training back to the Tampa Bay area from Port Charlotte is "definitely on the table.''

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A key hurdle, perhaps most significant, is getting permission from St. Petersburg, since the lease agreement requires the Rays to play all home games through 2027 at Tropicana Field. Mayor Rick Kriseman said Tuesday he’d be willing to talk about it, but only if the new stadium were built in St. Petersburg and be privately funded, with no city contribution.

"If Mr. Sternberg wishes to formally explore this concept with me and his desire to privately and fully fund a new stadium in the City of St. Petersburg, I am willing to listen,'' Kriseman said in a statement. "The City of St. Petersburg will not participate in the funding of a new stadium for a part-time team. We remain receptive to partnering with the Tampa Bay Rays to redevelop the Tropicana Field site and build a new stadium for a full-time team. St. Pete’s future has never been brighter and every business and baseball team in America should want to be a part of it.''

Kriseman also took a slight jab: "Finally, I believe progress moves at the speed of the trust. If Mr. Sternberg is serious about this idea or any other, it will require the re-establishment of a good working relationship with my office.”

Top Rays officials called the media session to start explaining publicly why moving half their home games to Montreal each season is the best and potentially only way to keep Major League Baseball in the Tampa Bay area long term.

Getting fans and area leaders to believe them — that this is not just a ploy to re-start stadium negotiations locally or a plan to relocate and leave the area completely — will be a major-league challenge.

This story will be updated

Related: MORE RAYS-MONTREAL COVERAGE: If the Montreal idea is bogus, what are the Rays really thinking?

Dali Museum welcomes Rays as ‘fellow surrealists’

Principal owner Stuart Sternberg and team presidents Brian Auld and Matt Silverman held a 1 p.m. media conference to share details of the unprecedented concept at the Dali Museum along the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront.

Museum director Hank Hines opened the session by welcoming their "fellow surrealists.''

The team brought a large group of team employees over from Tropicana Field, as well as several of their sponsors. St. Petersburg City Council chair Charlie Gerdes was among those in attendance, along with city spokesman Ben Kirby. Mayor Rick Kriseman was not in attendance.

Related: MORE RAYS-MONTREAL COVERAGE: The Rays’ Montreal Plan: A peek behind the curtain

The Rays spent the first 10 minutes of media session talking about how proud they are about all the things they do in the area, improvements to the Trop, how well they market the team, what they do for their employees.

Auld hinted at the reasoning for them exploring the split city concept: "We like to be first.''

Sternberg says he will continue to do all he can for baseball in the Tampa Bay area, and since ince buying a home in St. Pete he feels more connected to the area than ever.

The foundation of the plan, which would start in 2024, is for the team to play the first 35 or so games of the season in the Tampa Bay area, then by early June move to Montreal to play the balance of the 81 game home schedule.

New open-air stadiums, with capacities of no more than 30,000, would be built in both markets for the team, which would make long-term commitments, in the 25-30 year range, to both markets.

The plan faces significant hurdles, starting with permission from St. Petersburg to play any home games elsewhere before their use agreement at Tropicana Field expires after the 2027 season , which Mayor Rick Kriseman already said isn’t coming.

Also, the costs and requisite agreements to get the stadiums built, permission from the players union given major impact on the players and their families, an arrangement with the Montreal group seeking to get a franchise back, and dealing with a series of financial, legal and logistical issues that are expected to grow as the get further along.

After 10 years of trying to get a new stadium built in the Tampa Bay area, most recently with plans for an $892 million fixed roof ballpark in Tampa’s Ybor City falling apart in December, the Rays are pursuing this novel plan.

They see it as the best way to improve their financial standing while keeping the team, at least on a part-time basis, in the Tampa Bay area, where they have struggled with a lack of support and annually low attendance.

That would be accomplished with what they expect to be significant revenues in Montreal, which has been seeking a new team since the Expos were relocated to Washington, D.C., in 2005, and on an increased in revenues in the Tampa Bay market based on increased demand based on the reduced inventory.

“My priority remains the same, I am committed to keeping baseball in Tampa Bay for generations to come,’’ Sternberg said last week. “I believe this concept is worthy of serious exploration.’’

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They sought and received permission last week from Major League Baseball to explore the possibility of the split season, and are expected to report back in the spring on the feasibility. No MLB officials are expected at Tuesday’s media session.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said approval from the owners is not automatic and “there was no commitment, discussion, grant (of permission) on the issue of a permanent relocation. It was simply the split season possibility.''

The Montreal group, led by Stephen Bronfman, whose father owned the Expos, is expected to hold a media conference on Wednesday to explain why it would be interested in getting a team back on a partial season basis rather than waiting for an opportunity, via relocation or expansion, for a team on a full-time basis.

Given the inability to find a workable stadium deal based on the standard 81 home games, it would seem more challenging for the Rays to get one done with the reduced number.

But because the stadium will be open air they project it to be less expensive, a cost of about $600 million has been floated, and require less space, so they will be open to other locations that were previously not considered workable.

Related: MORE RAYS-MONTREAL COVERAGE: Rays’ Tampa Bay-Montreal plan: Beyond the initial hurt, see the positives

That could include the waterfront Al Lang Stadium site that is currently the home of the Rowdies soccer team they own and the Derby Lane greyhound track in northeast St. Petersburg. The team could also seek and negotiate permission from Kriseman to again consider sites in Hillsborough County, which could put downtown Tampa (and perhaps land now part of Lightning owner Jeff Vinik’s redevelopment project) and the fairgrounds back into play.

The Rays are also open to a number of concessions and accommodations to limit the burden of their plan on their players. That includes potentially relocating their spring training base from Port Charlotte back to the Tampa Bay area, allowing their players to stay in their same homes from February until the early June shift north, limiting them to the same one move players on other teams make in late March.

The Rays also see the plan as a key economic driver in both markets in terms of tourism and corporate investment.

Many of the details are still to be worked out, and team officials will stress they are open-minded in making this work.

The team would be expected to be remain named the Rays, with a patch or a different cap designating which area they are representing at the time.

The initial thought is that playoff games would be alternated by year whenever the team makes it.

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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